Today’s users are simultaneously looking for the fast delivery of high-quality products. But, this is a tall order for software developers. After all, how can you speed up something without losing quality? It can seem easy to do wrong, and difficult to do right.
An extreme example of what could go wrong when the pressures of expectations and time create a disaster for buyers is the infamous cringe-worthy Fyre Festival of 2017. After being hyped up by superstars for months and promising a beautiful, luxury vacation chock-full of amenities, this festival ended up being a huge flop: tiny hurricane shelters set up in a rainy lot, to be exact.
Unfortunately, software developers can face similar issues in today’s competitive industry: not enough time, money, and resources to create a promised product.
The software industry has a few “Fyre Festivals” of its own. Think Windows Vista, which caused countless pre-existing apps from its predecessor, Windows XP, to suddenly stop working. Or Apple iOS 6 Maps, which was described by The New York Times as "the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever released”.
Businesses rely more than ever on software products. The goal of building applications is for consumers to depend on their functions to some extent. This means that the speed and quality in which software is developed can make or break a company. The stakes are high, and that’s why development teams are turning to the CI/CD pipeline.
Like a virtual assembly line for software, a CI/CD pipeline automates and quality checks throughout the software development lifecycle to ensure development velocity is balanced with delivering a great product. It’s also known as a foundational piece of the DevOps approach. DevOps focuses on shifting company culture to create better communication between siloed departments, such as development and operations.
Two elements make up the pipeline: CI, which stands for “Continuous Integration”, and “CD”, which can be either “Continuous Delivery” or “Continuous Deployment”.
Continuous Integration focuses on the first half of the software development life cycle. It provides a central repository for all developers to use, along with automation to compile various artifacts into organized builds and perform initial tests. CI focuses on creating a single source of truth for developers to reference and automates anything going into this central repository, ensuring minimal errors.
Next, these builds move into a test environment, with the help of either Continuous Delivery or Continuous Deployment. Continuous Delivery focuses on delivering the builds into the test environment, then requires human intervention to deploy the tested builds into production.
Continuous Deployment, on the other hand, goes a step further by performing this deployment automatically, if the builds pass the tests conducted in the test environment. Because it relies so heavily on automated testing, Continuous Deployment works best for teams with more mature DevOps practices.
Together, these two elements (CI, and either Continuous Delivery or Continuous Deployment), make up the full CI/CD pipeline.
Related Article: Making Your CI/CD 10x Faster
Benefits of CI/CD Pipeline
The CI/CD pipeline can create better processes across your entire organization. A few of the benefits of using a CI/CD pipeline include:
1. Improved developer experience
Because it focuses on automation, a CI/CD pipeline takes care of menial tasks that used to be the development team’s responsibility. It also streamlines processes, automating the redundant tasks for developers, and letting them focus their skills on what they are best used for. For example, by using a code repository that gets updated in real-time, Continuous Integration prevents developers from creating conflicting or duplicate code. The CI/CD pipeline is an effective methodology for improving developer experience in organizations as it focuses on streamlining the software development lifecycle and improving developers' day-to-day tasks.
2. Better testing practices
CI/CD also focuses on iterative testing, instead of waiting until the very end of a development life cycle to test everything. By testing early and often, the CI/CD pipeline can catch issues such as conflicting builds, duplicate code, and bugs. And it catches these issues early in Continuous Integration, shortly after a developer writes and commits their code.
This means that the developer can fix initial issues only minutes after creating the code, rather than weeks or months after the fact. The longer development teams wait to fix issues in code, the worse the situation will become, as the code is much further down the line and possibly has dependencies that also need to get fixed.
3. Fewer bottlenecks
Long manual approval processes can lead to lots of bottlenecks. Instead of relying on a bunch of human checkpoints that could cause delays, the CI/CD pipeline uses automation to pass builds from one stage to another. With this method, everything happens quicker, simply because there are fewer places where builds could get stuck during the process.
Tools for an Effective CI/CD Pipeline
Each stage of the CI/CD pipeline requires different types of tools. These tools can either be focused on a specific task (e.g. an automated testing tool, a source code repository, etc.), or they can be all-in-one DevOps solutions that cover both halves of the pipeline.
Continuous Integration involves tooling for three critical functions: source control, testing automation, and build automation.
Source Control Version Management: As developers make commits, they should all upload to a central repository, which becomes a source of truth for them to reference.
Automated Testing: Testing needs to happen throughout the SDLC, rather than just at the end. Automated testing, performed in conjunction with source control version management, allows developers to ensure that their commits are error-free.
Build Automation: A build automation tool compiles the various artifacts being committed into the central repository. This consolidation prepares these various assets for the test environment, minimizing human intervention and saving time.
Related Article: Faster Software Delivery with DevOps Continuous Integrations
While this stage requires less tooling than Continuous Integration, it’s still equally important. Usually, Continuous Delivery requires two types of tooling.
Monitoring System: Looks after builds as they move out of the repository and into the test environment,
Test Optimization Tools: Streamlines the testing once the builds reach the test environment.
Often, these types of tooling are bundled with Continuous Integration solutions. These tools standardize and monitor steps within the software development lifecycle, making the implementation and delivery of software continuous through consistent automation and process.
As Continuous Deployment automates the final deployment to production, there are overlaps with Continuous Delivery tools with some additions. When your team implements Continuous Deployment, it’s important to include the following three tool categories.
Test Automation Tools: Without good testing, Continuous Deployment cannot function properly. CD doesn’t use a human checkpoint to move builds out of the test environment and into production. Because of this, testing ensures that a good quality product is hitting production.
Application Release Orchestration (ARO) Tools: These tools automate the orchestrated release of software updates. They perform the heavy lifting of moving the builds out of testing and into production, enabling systematic, predictable, and repeatable releases.
Application Performance Monitoring (APM) Tools: APM tools keep an eye on software in production, making sure that everything is running smoothly and notifying humans if something goes wrong.
Related Article: Comparing Continuous Delivery vs Deployment: Which One Should You Choose?